Volunteering makes you happy!

It’s official – volunteering can be addictive! Because it’s not just a one-way transaction, the positive feeling you get from volunteering brings loads of personal benefits. When you think about it, why do several retired folk go to their local community centre to help out every day? It isn’t just because they have plenty of time – they genuinely enjoy it because they feel a sense of achievement and worth.

Data on helping others
In a volunteer study by *Harvard Health* 16% of weekly volunteers considered themselves “very happy” and by starting to volunteer weekly, it was equivalent to jumping overnight from a £12,000 annual income to £47,000. (Judging happiness by your level of income isn’t really in the spirit of volunteering but we see their point!)

The happy-factor
If we were to ask our volunteers about their own personal experiences, chances are many would talk about the mix of emotions they felt when visiting a poor community and the hardships they have witnessed. But here’s an example from closer to home which you may already identify with:

On her way to the office recently, Helen in the admin team noticed something in the middle of the road. Although she couldn’t see clearly what it was, it seemed to be about half a metre high and brownish in colour. At first, she wondered if it was a teddy bear but then was very worried when she realised it might have been someone’s pet. As a car turned slowly into the road, Helen dashed across to rescue whatever it was sitting abandoned in the middle of the street. You can imagine her relief when she found it was a bag filled to the brim with leftover takeaway and paper cups! Instinctively, she picked up the bag and as there wasn’t a bin, left it on the side of the path up against the fence out of harm’s way. An elderly lady was passing, saw Helen picking up the bag and commented “Oh that’s good of you, I would’ve picked it up too. What litterbugs to leave it there in the road; it could’ve caused an accident and I was worried because it looked like a child.” The adrenalin rush of picking up the bag and the appreciation of the lady was immense. It lasted intensely for the rest of the day and Helen felt like she wanted to do another favour; anything to help someone else!

Of course, we all do good things every day such as making the tea, lending a friend a bus fare or taking out the rubbish at home or at work. But to be honest, in most circumstances it is something we feel compelled to do. After all, we could make a cake to share with our flatmate but would we think to bake an extra cake for an elderly neighbour we do not already chat to? The point here is that in giving something of yourself, when you are not compelled to, which is outside of your usual routine and comfort zone offers the highest rewards, it could even help you to live longer according to scientists at the University of Exeter, for more see http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/thinking-of-volunteering-on-your-gap-year-good-news-it-can-help-you-live-longer-8781700.html

And if you are not yet worrying about your health because you are young fit and healthy, a report published in JAMA Pediatrics http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2284301/Volunteering-reduces-risk-heart-disease-improves-physical-wellbeing.html  might change your mind. The teenagers which volunteered once a week had lower inflammation, lower cholesterol and lower BMIs.

So does doing something worthwhile and feeling good about it also make people react to you in a different way? Helen says although she didn’t tell people about what happened with the litter in the road, well, for a couple of days, she knows that she felt more positive and is sure that people she encountered throughout the day were more friendly as a direct response. She also picks up more litter than she used to and makes sure it finds its way into the next bin!

Not volunteered yet and want some happy hits yourself?
Here are some things you can try out to see what happens when you actively do something helpful for others. How does it make you feel? Do you notice other people picking up on your positive attitude? Don’t forget – the challenge is making a particular decision to do something and not just because you are expected to do it!
Also, if you’ve recently come back from volunteering and feel a bit low after all of your wonderful experiences abroad from helping others, have a go at these ideas yourself to get that “buzz” back in your life again!

  • Give up your seat when the passenger in need is far away from you on the bus/train.
  • Go back to a door to hold a door open (holding the door open for the person behind you not the same!)
  • When a tourist asks for directions, start a conversation and make personal suggestions on what to see in your town
  • Compliment someone at work/college who you would not usually talk to, on what they have done which was great/helpful/interesting
  • Let someone jump the queue in front of you when they do not expect it (i.e. they are buying less than you or they look like they are in need of someone doing them a favour)

Volunteering means sacrificing your own time, doing things you may not want to do and helping people in need whom you have never met. But just take a moment to think about some of the small things you could do which would make a big difference to children who live in some of the poorest parts of the world. What may seem irrelevant or pointless to you could be life-changing for them. And what better feeling is there than knowing that you made a child smile, taught them a brand new skill and gave them hope for the future?

*Read more about the Harvard Health Report athttp://www.health.harvard.edu/special_health_reports/simple-changes-big-rewards-a-practical-easy-guide-for-healthy-happy-living